January 29, 2012

This week: I can tell your characters aren't where you say they are.

I've been commuting a lot for work, through all sorts of weather, in the morning with the sun in my eyes, and at night in the dark. Driving through so much poor weather I've become very aware of visibility, and it's led me to think a lot about how when we draw, we often clarify s0 much that we don't depict visual distortions like the way headlights will sprout hundreds of tiny whiskers of light in some conditions, of how abstract and unresolved night driving in foggy conditions really is. I've been doing sketches for a webcomic about these sorts of things in my spare time before work. Thinking about this led me to thinking about a pet peeve of mine in comics and movies, which is the tendency of people to depict characters in an environment, but forgetting to show signs of them interacting with that environment.

Two scenes have always epitomized this for me, the two worst offenders I've ever seen.

First, watch this scene, which is infuriatingly also my favorite scene, from Peter Jackson's King Kong:

Notice anything missing? You can't see their breath. Jackson's team went to great lengths to depict the snow, to depict the slipperyness of the ice, to depict the effects of wind and movement on fur- but they forgot, somehow, that when it's cold out, you can see breath. Especially, one would think, the breath of a giant, warm, humid thing like Kong. Actually, no one aknowledges the temperature outside at any point in this scene or after. Later on, she's seen comfortably gripping the burningly coldsteel rungs of the sides of the Empire State building, and not shivering despite being outside at a high elevation in a very windy place in the middle of winter. Because of these omissions, I can tell the actress never left a green soundstage. The illusion is ruined for me. Instead of Kong's hand, I can only picture her embraced by foam coated in a green sheet.

Let's look at another example.

Actually, first, I want you to do something. I want you to put all your winter clothes on at once. Everything you have. Then I want you to exert yourself heavily for a few minutes. Lift some stuff, move some furniture, dance around, whatever.

If you can't exert yourself for medical reasons, then watch an episode of the Food network show Chopped. Look at the contestants after only five minutes of competition. Now watch this clip.

Notice anything missing? Not a goddamned drop of sweat. If you cook for five minutes in a hot kitchen you have to dab a constant dripping waterfall down your face. These guys fight so long it makes the fight from They Live seem brief, climbing and running and leaping, all the while surrounded by temperatures that must easily be skin-scalding. Ever been near real lava? I have. It's uncomfortable to bare skin from ten feet away. These guys are, on a few occasions, a couple feet from a river of it. The soles of their shoes should be melting. Their hair should be plastered to their heads, and they should barely be able to see through the stinging salty sweat pouring into their eyes. Again, you can tell they never left a green sound stage.

The worst part is, all those things that would have grounded the scene would also have increased the drama. In the case of the Kong scene, curls of breath would have enhanced the beauty of the scene, as well as completing the illusion. The problem is that when you're imagining a location instead of being in it, it's easy to forget these things, even for brilliant people.

Cartoonists can have the same problem. We imagine all our scenes, and I daresay we haven't been most of the places we end up drawing. Putting yourself into a scene so much you can feel it, and smell it, and feel your body reacting to it, is therefore of great importance.

Watch this scene from Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark:

Notice the lengths they went to to depict the cold of the Nepalese winter? The the snow steaming as it melts on their hats, his shaking voice, their bundled, pained body language, the contrast with the smoky, firelit interior? How shitty would this scene have been if Lucas did it now? We'd have had a gee-whiz exterior shot of the Himalayas, and they'd have walked in the door looking as comfortable as men in an air-conditioned California studio. Watch Fargo sometime to see what a cast looks like when they're really, for reals, balls-reascendingly cold. The weather is as much a character as any of the actors.

In other news, people who draw crazy costumes should bookmark this terrific tumblr of old clothing, Old Rags, which is searchable for people doing period clothing research. The author of the tumblr also takes written requests and questions. Even if you don't draw costumes much the site is a frequently updated visual feast.

I was fascinated that this image by Jillian Tamaki was drawn completely digitally:
Chris Schweizer is selling paper dolls of his Sherlock Holmes drawings, and he included a bonus one of Sherlock and John from the BBC series! EEEEE! Go buy it!


David said...

Hi Matt,

I really enjoy your blog and I've been following it for a few years now. Sorry this isn't related to the item you posted - although it was a good post and you make a great point. (I do think technology separates us from reality to such a degree that we have trouble making things seem believable despite the over-the-top "realism" seen in comics and CGI these days.) Anyway, the reason I'm writing is to point you to a post a did recently, detailing my building a combination drawing table/light box. I tried to give as much information as I could - particularly for the wiring part of it. If you're interested you can find the whole thing here at http://www.sneakydragon.com/daves-howto-lightboxdrawing-table.html
Sneaky Dragon is a podcast I do with Ian Boothby, writer for Simpsons and Futurama comics. Hope you find it interesting.


Russel Roehling said...

Hey Matt,

I'm also some guy who's been following your blog for quite some time. I gotta thank you for all the info you've been posting, and I'm really glad to see you're back!

your referencing the Indiana Jones scene immediately brought back the sensation of wet, melting snow and dry wood-heated air I got the first time I watched Ark of The Covenant as a kid. That tangibility is definitely something missing in a lot of modern cinema, and it made me panic for a bit thinking, "oh shit, have I been doing that in my comic pages?!" I'm gonna have to watch that I don't get lazy.

Russel Roehling said...

Sorry to ramble on here, but another thought just occurred to me. A device you don't often see used to set a scene in comics is smell. My first memory of any comic is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a scene where one of the characters describes the smell of rain on hot pavement...

apparently the part of our brains responsible for interpreting smells is strongly connected to the portions that create associative memory and emotional responses. It makes sense that even a description of a smell, which would in some way access our memories of the smell, would be a powerful way to conjure up emotional response in readers. Anyway I'm halfway into a bottle of wine, and need to stop. Typing that is, not drinking this bottle of wine.

Kafei said...

I was reminded of Titanic with your commentary on making environments convincing. Apparently James Cameron kept the water that was flooding the ship pretty darn cold to make the whole thing more convincing.